January 8, 2017
The Epiphany of the Lord
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."
3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."
9 After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
After a couple weeks of gospels from Luke through Christmas and last Sunday’s feast of Mary, Mother of God, we return this week to Matthew for our gospel. Matthew is the featured gospel for year A of the liturgical cycle, which we started on the first Sunday of advent. With the exception of next week when the gospel is from John, we will have Sunday gospels from Matthew until the third week of Lent.
The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Joseph obeying the instructions he had received in a dream. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) Matthew omits a number of important details between the end of his first chapter and the gospel text for this Sunday. Most people fill in those missing pieces with familiar passages from other Gospels, or works of art, and even our own reflection. However, the Church realizes that Matthew’s gospel holds wisdom and insight to be savored on its own.
When Joseph agrees to take Mary into his house as his wife as he had been instructed in a dream, he spares Mary the possibility of being stoned or even being sent away quietly to give birth to the child. Matthew skips over the details of the child’s birth entirely, with all of creation, angels to shepherds, proclaiming the glorious event that has taken place in Bethlehem. Instead Matthew reports that it is Joseph who gives the child the name Jesus, the name Luke reports was given to Mary at the annunciation. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) Matthew has skipped over the census, not finding room in the city and therefore moving to the manger, the angels who declare the birth, and the shepherds. Matthew does not even name Mary in telling us of the birth of Jesus. Despite not having relations with Mary, Joseph takes on the child as his son and gives him the name Jesus. Matthew conveys the other details related to the birth of Jesus in the text that is today’s gospel.
In the world into which Jesus was born, the Magi were those who studied the heavens for clues to the meaning of life. They functioned as political and religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and later the Persian empires. At one point in Persian history, the Magi revolted and replaced their king, demonstrating their importance within their culture. Given that they were looking for a person of significance, it is no surprise that they would first go to Jerusalem on this journey. But the newborn king who was to be found in Bethlehem was an entirely different kind of king. When the Magi arrived there and entered the house, they first saw the child with his mother, and then they prostrated themselves before the infant. Matthew has described this encounter so that his audience will recognize that the birth of this child is so significant that even dignitaries from distant lands have come to acknowledge his importance. He also introduces the idea that Jesus’ presence in the world will draw Gentiles to recognize the presence of God. Who these Magi were, their names, how many -- these details that have been added later are not described by Matthew. The Magi are important in Matthew’s text for only one reason: the world is affected by what God has done. They have come to acknowledge and reverence this event.
Matthew highlights the response of the Magi by contrasting it to that of Herod and all of Jerusalem. Unlike the Magi who have esteem and authority in their society, King Herod is merely a puppet ruler for the Romans. Apart from the presence of the star, the Magi have only their understanding that the star’s appearance signifies the birth of a person of importance. Herod has advisors who know of the prophecies about the birth of the messiah, but they seem to be oblivious to the fact that he has arrived. Herod’s reaction is one of distress, and he is not moved to take any direct personal action. Rather, with a deceitful claim for his motive, he directs the Magi to bring him the information he needs. The Magi have taken on the difficult and dangerous task of leaving their homeland to track down the person whom the star’s appearance signifies. They have brought precious gifts that indicate his importance, and they bow before him.
The Magi and Herod represent two very different responses to the presence of Jesus. Those who have the advantage of being familiar with the religious traditions (which should help them recognize the significance of the events unfolding before them) are unable to identify who Jesus is. Those without the benefit of being familiar with the religious tradition are willing to take on personal risk. They are able to recognize the significance of this infant’s birth. The reading suggests that the action of God in our world crosses human barriers. All who sincerely seek the way of God will be successful. God’s love is powerful and pervasive - it will not be thwarted.
1. What qualities do you associate with infants and young children?
2. What is the range of responses that people in your family might have to news that one of the family is pregnant?
3. Who in your family are the first in line to hold the babies at family gatherings? Are there any in your family who might be overwhelmed by the presence of a newborn?
4. The Magi were men who were comfortable enough with the darkness to study changes in the night sky. What are the areas of darkness in your own life today? Are you more apt to avoid reflection on your own darkness, or to look for signs of God’s presence in the darkness?
5. The Magi offered their treasures as gifts to Jesus. What is your treasure that you would like to offer? Are there treasures that you are not yet ready to offer? Do you think that God is patient enough to wait until you are ready?
6. The Magi were warned not to return to Herod. What would have had to be different for the Magi to have been directed back to Jerusalem and encouraged to tell of their experience?
7. How is your community like the Jerusalem of Herod, and how is it like the Jerusalem that might have been suitable for the Magi?
8. What stands out for you in Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus? What might this be showing you about how God is present in the events of your life?
On Wednesday of each week, the Gospel and reflection questions for the upcoming Sunday are posted at the following link: http://il-ritiro.org/gospel-reflections.aspx. You are invited to share your own reflection and comments with others at this website.
The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM. This week they are updated from those that Fr. Paul prepared for Epiphany 2016. They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel. The excerpts from the Sunday readings are prepared by Joe Thiel. To be added to the distribution list, send your email address to email@example.com.
Fr. Paul remains in our prayers during his time off for recovery from surgery.
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Excerpts from the readings for January 8, 2017, The Epiphany of the Lord
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.
Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
O God, with your judgment endow the king, and with your justice, the king's son;
He shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment.
Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.
For he shall rescue the afflicted; he shall have pity for the lowly and the poor.
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and came to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he asked the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
from you, Bethlehem, shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."
They set out, and the star that they had seen came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Excerpts from Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6 and Matthew 2:1-12